5 reasons why classic arcade games are relevant to mobile game design

Anyone who has read my blogged blitherings before will know how pre-occupied I am with the importance of the video game arcades of yesteryear.
Arcade game designers did not have the luxury of being able to present protracted stories through endless cut-scenes and fancy cinematics. Their task was to entertain the player and take as many coins as possible.

The latter is perhaps the key to why arcade games are so relevant to modern mobile game design since by definition it is an exercise in keeping game times short and thrilling.
So just how did they do it ? Why were some games more appealing and revered amongst gamers as others.

Here I offer 5 basic reasons why I think the lore of classic arcade game design is relevant to the design of modern mobile games. I’m by no means an expert but through my observations I’ve also managed to come up with what may be some useful tips on designing your own mobile games.

1. Attract

Anybody old enough to remember the heyday of the video game arcade will probably remember the sights and sounds that greeted you as you stepped in clutching your fistful of coins.
It was giddying to say the least. Especially when faced with a selection of new cabinets.
I remember fondly the times I spent treading the boards of the local arcade hunting for that one machine to which  I would offer my coin  in return for a few minutes of pure pixellated thrills.
The cabinets had a life all of their own as they jostled, beeped, whined and occasionally spoke to you  to attract your attention.
Every game had its attract mode. That brief glimpse you got to view the game for free.
Some of the better games had an audible identity that set them aside from the all too generic laser bleeps of most.

Defender’s electronic wind-up sound, Galaxians’ diving alien sound, Spy Hunter’s stunning Peter Gunn soundtrack…

It was perhaps the effective use of sound that attracted me most. Perhaps I hunted with my ears far before I’d engaged my eyes.

In some cases it was about the cabinet itself.
Who could forget the striking 6 foot alien that adorned the side of the Space Invaders cabinet ?

What’s important is that the game had to get you in. It had to pull you toward it such that you were close enough to see what it had to offer. By the time you’d got to within a foot of the cabinet you were probably more concerned with the controls than anything else. Just how damned hard is this thing going to be ? I sure as hell don’t want to waste a coin on trying to figure out how to control the blessed thing !

For me there is a valuable lesson to be learned here in attracting a player to your game.
In the ever-expanding app stores that we see for games on the web your title has to stand out as being attractive, playable, controllable and of course entertaining. You don’t get much time to sell your wares. The app stores are full of 3 minute thrills.

My tip: design your game to look good in ANY screenshot. Even the title screen.

2. Accessibility

In anything that we do in life we are most likely to shy away from anything that looks confusing.
This is a huge concern for game designers and was a huge issue for arcade game designers. The spaghetti fingered controls of Defender aside most games kept it very straight forward.
Indeed you could glance at a game’s control system and instantly know that you were going to enjoy playing the game.
Early games employed a single stick and a single button. This simplicity was vital and of course enforced on the designer. The same limitations apply today. Especially on hand-held devices where a certain amount of improvisation is required in terms of controlling the action.

Later games with better capacity provided brief tutorials on how to control the game.
Useful but probably rarely read through in any detail.
A huge factor in enjoying an arcade game was being able to instantly pick up the controls and feel like it was all very natural.

But it’s not just about controls. Where do you start your game ? Are you hurled straight in to chaos ?
Nothing is going to irritate a gamer more than standing absolutely no chance from the outset. All your hard work in designing the game’s numerous wonderful scenarios will be wasted if you turn your audience away within 30 seconds.

My tip: provide the player with a safe zone on entry. Before you unleash hell on him with countless dive-bombing aliens let him have a period of calm as he uses common sense to fiddle with the controls. In a shoot ’em up, for example, I like to give the player a few seconds to move around and shoot at nothing before I introduce the cast.

3. Continually dangle the carrots

Take all your fantastic game ideas, implement them, play them, remove the duds and then concentrate it all down for maximum effect.
If, for example, you have the wonderful idea of a power-up that the player receives  for collecting certain items make sure that you constantly remind him that this is a goal to be achieved. Don’t let the player forget about all your wonderful little ideas.

Some of the most effective arcade games had that one game-changing element – the power-up. That single item that when collected gave you complete control over your adversaries.

Pac-Man is the epitome of this. Everybody knows that eating the larger energy dot gives you the edge. It’s pretty obvious and is always in view. It’s something to aim for even though at times you find yourself in a sticky situation. You’re being chased by Pinky (or whichever one did all the chasing) but you know full well that if you could get to that larger dot the tables will be turned. Excellent design.

My tip: constantly drip feed the small bonus items that comprise a much larger benefit to the player. Don’t let them forget what they’re aiming for. When all smaller items are collected hit the player with his well earned benefit. Remind the player that bonuses really are worth aiming for.

4. Keep it obvious

Any game where a single character / avatar stands out by virtue of the fact that they are visibly different to everything else on screen is going to help the player understand what is required of them. A quick glimpse on screen and a quick glimpse down to the controls ought to be enough for a potential player to take that all important step up to your game.

Gamers are (or can be) very lazy. They expect much of the hard brain work to have been done by the designer. For the gamer it is all about picking up the controls and just getting on with it. Gamers want breaks. If they fall off the edge of the cliff with their first attempt at steering the car they don’t want to be told it’s GAME OVER.

By virtue of the fact that the car COULD leave the cliff on the first bend within 10 seconds of game time ought to suggest to the player that this is a relatively safe action but something they should get very used to. It’s going to be a common feature in the game and not going to get any easier.

As the old Atari mantra used to read – simple to learn, hard to master.

Every successful video game has this underlining its design.

Modern classics such as Angry Birds epitomise it.

Much of the art of keeping things obvious is in the presentation.
If you have a squadron of aliens hovering in formation above a solitary gunship at the base of the screen it’s pretty obvious what’s going to be expected of the player.
Similarly if you see your kung-fu character standing directly opposite a similar looking character it’s pretty obvious what you’re in for.

As mentioned previously helping the player to become familiar with your game is vital to it being adopted and enjoyed. It’s also  key to it being played time and time again.

My tip: in your game’s artwork consider a visual separation between the player’s character / avatar and the rest of the game’s characters. Also consider the staging of the action. If possible visibly divide the screen up in to the player’s zone and the enemy’s zone. The latter is not always relevant but useful where possible.

5. Reward everything

Take your basic actions – movement, shooting, jumping, implement them and then play with them. Make them 10x more fun. Exaggerate them and provide as much audio / visual feedback as possible. Reward every action and every consequence in as flamboyant a manner as the platform allows.

Again I go back to Defender.
Hit the fire button – stream of multi-coloured lasers thrash across the screen – satisfying electronic laser sound – alien explodes in to a million shards – satisfying explosion sound.
Make it count that the player has just performed the most trivial of actions. Reward everything !

It might seem silly to you to do nothing more than present a simple “puff” of orange when the enemy has been shot but the rewards to the player of seeing a shower of debris are enormous.

Rewards in games are not limited to collecting things or completing challenges. Rewards extend to just about everything that a player is doing in a game.

It’s not a classic arcade game but consider the process of shooting an Imp with a shotgun in DOOM.
Aim, hit fire button,  deep gunshot sound, imp falls in shower of blood, visual reloading of shotgun with accompanying sound.
You could take this scenario a step further by suggesting that the shotgun going off is actually a wake-up call to nearby monsters. This in itself is rewarding the player since it brings on a whole new level of chaos ready for the player to deal with. And all that the player had to do is press his fire button. Beautiful game design.

In the arcades there were many genres that lent themselves to rewarding the player in style. But none were as instantly satisfying as the shoot and destroy approach of Space Invaders and its clones.

Later shoot ’em ups delivered visual rewards in spades.
The combination of  lasers and explosions can quite often leave the player feeling a little confused but there’s something utterly mesmerising about watching it all unfold on screen. Patterns of lasers resulting in patterns of explosions against the rippling patterns of an alien formation that litters the screen with patterns of falling bombs.

This is a huge visual reward since everything that the player does effects the pattern.

My tip: create as much of a “safe” visual experience as the platform will allow. If you eliminate something from the screen don’t simply remove it – destroy it. Throw single pixels around at the very least. Better still accompany its removal with a satisfying and relevant sound effect. Subconsciously the player will seek to repeat this as quickly as possible since it is an enormously satisfying experience. But never force the player to have to handle the fallout of the action.

I hope that my thoughts meet with your own somewhere down the line. Or at least prompt some thoughts. If that is the case please feel free to share your comments.
This article is not meant to be an “how to design an arcade game” more an insight in to the observations I have made whilst researching the classic games of the arcades.

As mobile platforms evolve and their games mature it may be surprising just how relevant the design ethos of arcade games from 25 – 30 years ago are.

Whatever game you design the most important thing is to have fun. If you’re enjoying it you can be pretty sure that there will be an appreciative audience somewhere.

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  • Cody  On December 17, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    Wow! Great Article!

    You actually helped me finalize some rather troubling design dilemmas for my own game.

    Seriously. Thank you!

    • markw1970  On December 18, 2010 at 8:26 am

      That’s great ! What kind of game are you building ?

      • Cody  On December 19, 2010 at 6:55 am

        It’s nothing special. Just a maze game for my son and I. We sometimes make each other mazes to complete on paper. After quite a lot of them, we started changing it up and they became little games with resources to use to get through the maze. For example, I made a maze with with no way to get through, but I left a drill bit in some far off corner. He had to then find the drill bit and then decide which wall to drill through to complete the maze (he could only use it once). And now, I think it’s getting too complicated to be paper-based. ;-) Anyway, it’s a good exercise for learning HTML5 if it doesn’t end up being an actual game with a legitimate challenge.

        How this relates to your article is that… I was concerned about my player avatar being too colorful compared to the background and potential creatures. You’ve convinced me that it’s probably a good thing. Also, I’ll dangle carrots by making the items you want to collect sparkle a bit every few seconds to keep his attention on the available goals. Maybe even have multi-part pieces to build so that there are more things to collect, thus more rewards (things to do) to complete one simple objective.

        Being that he’s 6, I’ll have to keep it very accessible. So much so that written instructions won’t even be an option. I was concerned about the game being too complicated, but now I realize that it can get quite intricate as long as you introduce new concepts at a controlled pace. Also, he’s explained to me that he doesn’t want to fight monsters and be killed by them so now I have the challenge of having entities that you can manipulate somehow to achieve goals.

        Long story short, I initially thought the concepts listed were too basic to appeal to more complicated and mature games. However, since I was working on something for my son, it was somehow more relevant. But now I realize that it’s relevant to all game designs, for all audiences. It just took a while for it to really sink in and it really opened my eyes, is all.

        Now you have me thinking how running over and collecting a simple item can be made more appealing and exciting. In The Legend of Zelda, Link would hoist the new item above his head in triumph with celebratory theme playing. It’s one thing to read and understand something, but it’s another thing to read something and believe it whole heartedly.

        So… thanks, man. ;-)

  • markw1970  On December 19, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    You have the exact same play tester / design assistant as I do :) My daughter loves playing the games on the wife’s iPhone. In fact if I’m honest I design a fair bit with her in mind.

    I’m a big believer in layering game content and slowly increasing the visibility of the game’s features. HyperGunner’s laser upgrade and hyperspace progress bar are an example of this.

    I may blog quite a bit on the ideas I have about the subconscious responses and actions that games present. If only to prompt some discussion.


  • […] Some more thoughts on building fun and challenging arcade games I’ve written it before that I’m not a huge fan of design documents for small projects. I’d rather be coding. So please don’t consider this as a literal document it’s more my own thoughts on some pointers for creating cool arcade games. I guess it goes hand in hand with my previous thoughts on the importance of arcade game design. […]

  • […] Some recent activity in the HTML5 gaming community has steered me towards rethinking my approach to designing games for mobile devices. I decided to ask myself some key questions. The answers to which could potentially come very close to challenging my own thoughts on the relationship between my beloved retro arcade games and today’s mobile games. […]

  • […] you’re enjoying it you can be pretty sure that there will be an appreciative audience somewhere. (Source: HTML5 Game Design) 分享到: QQ空间 新浪微博 开心网 […]

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